Paving the Callejon

Valvino and his family are paving the callejon. His sons Oscar and Rolando are men enough for real work, swinging the pick or sledgehammer, pushing a full-sized wheelbarrow full of cobblestones or cement. Various small grandsons share a child-sized wheelbarrow and have a go with the pick whenever anyone is willing to indulge them. Valvino’s wife sometimes comes out in the afternoon to kibitz, as do his two daughters, one of whom brings her own small daughter. A couple of friends stop by to work or hang out. Ian, who grew up with Valvino’s oldest son, Antonio, and is now in law school, kibitzes, too; his parents live on the callejon. Antonio himself comes by on weekends to pitch in, bringing his two small children to watch.

Road Crew at Work

Road Crew at Work

As I write this in the office of the casita I rent from my friend Sue, the excited chatter of children cuts through the deeper tones of the men, with a woman’s voice chiming in occasionally. Then all is silent but the thud of the sledgehammer. They are breaking up the concrete at the paved end of Sierra Gorda, the calle that dead-ends in the callejon—a short, narrow, previously dirt lane, or alley, named Curtidores, that runs between several gringo houses, two of them relatively new.

Curtidores starts where Callejon Atascadero runs up from Santo Domingo and abruptly switches to stone steps. Making the blind left turn off the short steep hill onto Curtidores means gunning the engine at just the right moment. If you overshoot, you could ram into the stone wall of an ancient tanning pool. Callejon Curtidores was the alley of the hide cutters, probably in the 18th century, certainly the 19th.

Gringos began to move up here—near the top of the hill that rises at the east end of town—in the 1970’s. Sue’s house compound, at the corner of Sierra Gorda and Curtidores, was a one-story colonial relic when Peter, who’d first come to San Miguel in the 50’s, began building it up, adding a second story, darkrooms, a third-story studio, guest quarters, sheds, the casita. In the mid-80’s, my friend Judy bought a rubble-strewn lot on the other side of Sierra Gorda, which in those days was unpaved, too. She and her husband David, whose family has owned land in San Miguel for generations, incorporated the lot’s colonial stone “shack,” with its beautifully carved, heavy wooden doors, into their house compound. Eventually, when Sierra Gorda was lined with house walls on both sides, the residents got together and had it paved.

On the other side of its intersection with Sierra Gorda, Curtidores remains flat for a short stretch and then trails downhill, angles right and takes a new name, Chepitos. Just beyond Valvino’s house, Chepitos narrows into a pedestrian walkway, overhung with bougainvillea and deeply shaded by the gringo and Mexican houses that crowd along it. Chepitos gives onto Cuesta de San Jose, the other main road leading down into town.

At the road-building site, there are engineering decisions to be made. The stretch of Curtidores between Atascadero and the intersection with Sierra Gorda has had to be raised to prevent the flooding that the rains used to bring to Steve’s house. He’s paying for this stretch, and he does a fair amount of kibitzing himself. The question is, how to angle the new surface to connect with Sierra Gorda, which rises northward from Curtidores, in such a way that when the rains come the water pouring down Sierra Gorda will drain into Curtidores and keep on flowing—down to Santo Domingo on its east end and down the hill past the vacant lot on its west end.

When the rains come to San Miguel, cobblestone streets and other hard surfaces become swift-running streams. Water flowing in from side streets hits the downhill streams with waves of turbulence. I’ve seen the steps at the northwest corner of the Jardin, the Plaza Principal at the center of town, turn into a waterfall, feeding the ankle-deep flow of the street below it.

But now it’s the dry season, and Steve, a retired lawyer from Maine in a white polo shirt, khaki Bermuda shorts and running shoes with no socks, is trying to help solve the engineering problem; unlike many gringos in this town, he’s fluent in Spanish and has a lot of Mexican friends. His hose provides water for the cement that Valvino’s crew mixes on the ground in the vacant lot beyond Sue’s house. The stretch of callejon from Sierra Gorda to the lot, running between Sue’s house on one side and two other gringo houses on the other, was the first section to be paved, using stones from the vacant lot. Sue and her neighbors hired Valvino, and on the basis of his work for them, Steve followed suit.

The First Stretch, Half-Done
The First Stretch, Half-Done

The flat half of the vacant lot where the cement is mixed serves as a parking lot (the day’s mound of wet cement is an impediment, but now that the intersection with Sierra Gorda is torn up, no one can drive anywhere anyway). Beyond the parking area, the lot runs down hill next to Curtidores. It’s full of stones that are the right size for cobblestones, cemented by hand-poured mortar. Steve, though, has purchased “river stones”—fairly uniform in size and nicely rounded. I remember, during my first visit to San Miguel, in 1995, watching workmen paving a downtown block (a municipal, as opposed to private, project). They carefully set the egg-shaped cobblestones upright in the dirt, then poured liquid cement around them from little beakers like Turkish coffee pots.

On Curtidores, the little kids have been having a ball. On the first stretch, in front of Sue’s house, they could dig up a few cobblestones from the parking lot / stone quarry, load them into their miniature wheelbarrow, and trundle them to the paving site. Even with the river stones, they can help set them into the stretch of dirt graded and prepared by their elders. It’s the kind of real participation in adult life that, in the US, would violate every known child-labor law, while provoking the nostalgia of cultural historians who yearn for the days when US kids could find meaning in life through similar participation.

Valvino Works; Kids Clown
Valvino Works; Kids Clown

Valvino—a cheerful, stocky man with a pronounced limp, a generous belly, broad features and a luxuriant black mustache—is the neighborhood entrepreneur. His house on Chepitos and the two next to it are sandwiched in between two gringo establishments. The one on the corner houses several rental casitas behind its high walls. On the other side, a brand-new B&B is under construction, its parking garage giving onto the very end of the drivable stretch of Chepitos. The gringo houses all have high, smooth, variously tinted facades or walls. Valvino’s house and the two next to it are brick, on several levels, with a big stack of timber in front of two of them, bird cages and, often, a cage or two of puppies on the porches, a big sheet of blue plastic shading one section, and potted flowers hanging everywhere. On weekend evenings you may find Valvino’s extended family and friends sitting outside his house, small children and puppies tumbling over each other, adults chatting and laughing, music playing. During the day, you’ll almost always find a couple of hand-pulled wagons stacked with plastic bags of garbage, waiting for the garbage truck to clang its arrival on Cuesta de San Jose. One of Valvino’s self-constructed jobs is collecting the garbage from various gringo houses in the neighborhood and taking it out to the garbage truck.

Valvino's House
Valvino’s House, with Garbage Wagon

The garbage trucks in San Miguel are small, open trucks with high, white, slatted wooden sides. The garbage men, the basureros, stand in the back on top of the pile of garbage bags. The truck moves slowly along and stops, announcing its presence with the clanging of an iron triangle. Householders come out with their garbage, in cans or bags, and hoist it up to the waiting hands of the basureros.

The trucks don’t come down Sierra Gorda, so Valvino performs a valuable service. Without him, householders on Curtidores and Sierra Gorda would have to lug their garbage the equivalent of a couple of blocks—and, in any case, they can’t hear the clanging of the truck.

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3 Responses to “Paving the Callejon”

  1. Deborah Allen Says:

    Very funny about the child labor laws. Maybe part of the appeal of the story is simple nostalgia. What kid of a certain age doesn’t remember riding a bicycle without a helmet or sitting in the back of a pickup with the dog? We’ve done a great job of making our lives safer en el Norte, maybe a little too safe.

  2. peggy fernandez Says:

    I loved this article because I see it happening every day in San Miguel.
    People having fun working together (adults and children), as we used to
    do in the US. I can’t wait to live permanently in this beautiful quaint

  3. Elegant natural lighting in a traditional colonia | Says:

    […] As mentioned before, Sam Miguel’s colonial atmosphere and architecture is protected by federal regulations but it does have all the modern technology you are used to. All of this is surrounded by what may be more charm than you can handle. […]

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